Dieterich Buxtehude (1637-1707)

Dieterich Buxtehude was born in Helsingborg, Helsingør (Elsinore), or Oldesloe; he is prudently referred to as a ‘Danish-German composer’. What we know for certain is that he worked in Lübeck for most of his life: from 1668 until his death. His main task at the local St. Mary's Church was as organist (his father Johannes Buxtehude was the same), as well as a mandatory part time job as ‘church writer’ (accountant).

Buxtehude was the successor to Franz Tunder at St. Mary's Church. He married Tunder’s daughter; at that time this was a standard part of the employment package.

Lübeck was the capital of the Hanseatic League, the trade association of cities around North Sea and Baltic Sea. Even after this medieval organization was a significant power, Lübeck remained an important trading center. To support the city’s trading, ‘Abendmusiken’ were organized in the Church of St. Mary - concerts, sponsored by the city’s merchants. Tunder took the initiative for the ‘Abendmusiken’, modeled on the concerts that the organist and city musician Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck organised in the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam

Buxtehude started writing compositions for the ‘Abendmusiken’ in 1673, often with an oratorio-like character. That work has not survived; as the story goes, the local fishmongers used the scores as packaging material. Meanwhile, those works and his virtuoso organ improvisation made him famous far beyond Lübeck. Among his admirers was Johann Sebastian Bach. Age of thirteen he transcribed a complicated piece by Buxtehude and in the late autumn of 1705 the nineteen-year-old Bach left Arnstadt for Lübeck to hear the renowned musician play. It was a journey of four hundred kilometers on foot, over the rugged Harz Mountains, in the days when winters were still winters. Bach remained three months.

Handel was also to drop by later that year. He was already an internationally well-known composer. The City of Lübeck pampered him, in the hope that he would be the successor to Buxtehude; Handel politely refused. It seems that Buxtehude’s daughter was a strong counter-argument.

Text: Dick van Teylingen. English translation: Peter Hilton.

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